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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Keeping the record straight....

posted by Razib Khan at Wednesday, March 23, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
Red State Diary.

First, I would like to note that this entry is going to be cross-posted on both Dean Nation and Redstate (diary), so that might explain some pecularities about assumptions I make about the audience.

I write this in response to the entry on, A Lead Role in a Cage, by Paul J. Cella. In that post he points to the historical enmity between the West and the Dar-al-Islam by appealing to the historical record, and in the comments, offers two specific policy points:

(1) Cease all immigration from Islamic countries, excepting specifically persecuted minorities.

(2) Deport all Muslims here illegally (or, if that sounds too discriminatory, deport all who have shown the least hint of sympathy for terrorism.)

I do not have a vociferous objection to either point, and tend to support the latter position. I speak as an atheist of Muslim immigrant background, so I am not one who has a great deal of "solidarity" with the Ummah. On position (1) I think there are issues of "fairness" as it is understood in the United States today, and, I also think "excepting specifically persecuted minorities" would result in a bureaucratic morass.

Nevertheless, this post is not really pointed toward the public policies or political persuasion of Paul Cella, and it is not really about Paul Cella at all. It is about the relationship between rationality and empiricism, and their particular application in the realm of values and history.

Unlike the natural sciences history has no real "theory." Some ambitious scholars such as Spengler and Toynbee have attempted to offer a "Theory of History," but in general their exercises are not viewed as successes by the discipline, which tends to fixate on the reality of narrow hard facts as opposed to the elusive grand Truths of theory. In the natural sciences there is often a great deal of distortion and confusion when there is an attempt to "map" the consensus within the discipline outward to the general public, so it makes sense that in history it would be even more of a problem, as predictive measures amenable to falsification are thin on the ground.

History is concerned with an specific accurate rendering of the past much more so than it is concerned with generating an overarching model. In the former endeavour assembling a mass of data is paramount, because historical scholarship is very prone to selection biasing. If you seek it, you shall find confirmation of your bias in droves because the data is so numerous that in any exposition if you have 10 slots to fill to support your thesis you will almost certainly be able to find facts to fill those slots. Good faith and proper breadth of knowledge are crucial for exposition based on historical truths to be anything more than rhetorical exercises. And this is where connecting rationality and empiricism, values and history, becomes relevant.

If one espouses a particular set of values a priori then one can often infer a host of "obvious" positions that one must take. If one cherishes the Christian nature of the United States of America, then it seems clear that moderate immigration levels must be maintained, as 2/3 of the world's population is non-Christian. If one believes that 10% of Muslims pose a grave threat to the existence of the United States of America if they attained residence upon its soil, then

a) One could conclude that Muslims should be excluded from residence or
b) The selection process for Muslims entering the United States must be stringent so as to exclude the 10% who would be hostile to the existence of the republic, and it might behoove one to err on the side of caution in such a case.

I will move past analysis of the public policy issues because that is not what interests me, rather, it is when individuals attempt to support their public policy positions, often derived a priori based on values with the supplement of empirical evidence. To someone of different values only empirical evidence will sway them, and those who do share values take strength from the facts of reality which buttress their model of the world. This synergistic process is not deterministic, it is entirely possible that individuals can infer different truths from the same assemblage of facts, often filtered through the lens of their values, even if those facts are identical.

And it is on the last point that I must place an emphasis, dialogue, understanding and persuasion are difficult even when the facts are manifestly accurate, but the discourse can be irrevocably debased and poisoned when the facts are not correct, or the sample biasing is plainly naked. This means that when someone marshals facts, and the historical record, they should be well versed in the particulars of the time and place, and well aware of the varied opinions that converge upon a "consensus" (or at least a consensus of dispute). The facts are also scaffolded by peculiar semantic twists and turns that trigger implicit associations to flesh out the concept that is being communicated. Terms like "nation" or "citizen" or "race" have historically contingent interpretations, and freely translating them across periods without qualification can result in gross inaccuracies.

It is here that I become concerned with the state of knowledge of the general public when they attempt to engage in discourse without the full deck of cards. Mistakes, miscues, slips of the tongue or phrase, are indicators of a lack of proper fluency of the period or place, and just as someone who learns mathematical formulae through algorithms only useful to them rather than deductive proofs which expose the assumptions and underlying structure of mathematics often misses the critical deep insights which allows them to extend their application of math into novel domains, so those who lack a fully fleshed knowledge of history as a intellectual discipline whose primary purpose is not to be a handmaid for political persuasion or a buttress for values often undermine the plausibility of their own "cases" by their clumsiness.

To know Who We Are, as citizens of the West, we must know Who We Were. In contravention of the thin dogma put forward by the multiculturalist Left we must rediscover the Dead White Males who were so crucial to the formation of the West, and therefore, the Rest as well. We must move past cookie cutter preconceptions of Orientalism or the Noble Savage, and explore the other civilizations that have existed upon this earth on objective terms, not on their terms, or our terms. We must move beyond facile and glib assertions about the past which issue from a mediocre distillation of the constellation of scholarship that is freely accessible to all with the will and sincerity to the plumb its depths.

With all that said, I offer two books which I think offer critical insights by engaging the reader with the mass of scholarship rather than facile generalizations:

A History of the Byzantine State and Society (there is no fat in the 874 pages)

The Reformation (a brilliant exposition of the breaking of Western Christendom)


On immigration policy I am willing to discuss the need for controls, and am ready to be convinced, as I am sympathetic to some of those positions. However, if the basis for imigration policy is that America is a "Christian Nation", which is what Cella really seems to hang his argument on, then I am opposed intractably.

The phenomenon of facts in service to ideology is a hallmark of the modern political era. A case study can be made for how Paul integrates the Treaty of Tripoli into his assessment - or whether he bothers to integrate it at all.


hmm, while i like your mathematical analogy overall, i would offer that history is the laboratory of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, and some basic knowledge of those domains might be more useful than bare a priori facts and data to inform some hypothetical "Theory of History".
There are basic truths and motivations of the nature of homosapiens that are universal themes in history. It seems you advocate using historical accuracies to make predictive models-- why not start with the predictive models and reinforce them with historical fact? ;)


jin, you are right.

aziz. i think there are multiple levels of analysis, or, more accurately, we need to parse the term "christian nation" precisely. i think paul (from what i have seen on his weblog) tends to leave his terms fuzzy, perhaps because he thinks they are "self-evident" to others.

when most on the "religious right" use the term "christian" they actually mean conservative protestant. when paul uses, he implies something broader, and is clearly informed by his catholic background. as a matter of realy, the vast majority of americans don't go to "christian" churches, they go to baptist, catholic, lutheran, presbyterian and methodist churchess, and this reality is a problem for the "christian nation" narrative.

more later.


but, razib, you are more right than i about the basic problem.
It is here that I become concerned with the state of knowledge of the general public when they attempt to engage in discourse without the full deck of cards.

And it is not just historical fact but science-- consider the opposing sides in the terri schiavo PVS diagnosis. The arguemnt on both sides seems to be such-and-such neurologist is wrong, because he supports [choose one] pro-life, right-to-die, pro-choice, Randall Terry-- i mean, none of this reasoning has anything to do with the neurologist's skill as a diagnostician, both sides are doing it and it is completely out of control.
And i know i can't expect to have everyone acquire some basic knowlegde of the underlying biological structures of history, or the basic principles of Holy Science, but why not civility, fact-finding and research?


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.